Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail: The Ultimate, 10-day, Ultralight Plan

By Michael Lanza

Are you planning to thru-hike the John Muir Trail? “America’s Most Beautiful Trail” should be on every serious backpacker’s tick list. After hiking it in a blazing (and slightly crazy) seven days, I became convinced that—while that was quite hard—the traditional itinerary of spreading the roughly 221 miles out over about three weeks has a serious flaw: With limited food-resupply options, you’ll carry a monster pack that may not only make you sore and uncomfortable, it could cause injuries that cut short your trip.

As I write in my blog story “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” thousands of miles of backpacking over more than three decades—including about 10 years as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine, and even longer running this blog—have taught me that the single best step I can take to make all trips more enjoyable is simple: lightening my pack weight.

In this article, I lay out a smart, complete, and proven ultralight strategy for thru-hiking the JMT in 10 to 11 days—and why you’d want to do it.


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-guides to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.


The John Muir Trail—definitely one of America’s 10 best backpacking trips—is ideal for going ultralight because of its generally dry summers, well-constructed footpath, and moderate grades. Backpackers who arrive with their legs in trail shape can knock off 20 to 22 miles a day—spending about 10 hours a day on the trail (including breaks) and averaging 2.5 mph, a reasonable pace for someone who’s fit and carrying a light pack.

See my stories “Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail: What You Need to Know,” “The Best Backpacking Gear for the John Muir Trail,” “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan your JMT thru-hike and any trip you read about at The Big Outside, plus my affordable, expert e-guides to backpacking trips in Yosemite and other parks.

Please share your thoughts on my tips below, or your own tricks, in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.

Want to hike the John Muir Trail? Click here for expert, detailed advice customized for your trip.

A hiker at Trail Crest on the John Muir Trail on Mount Whitney in Sequoia National Park.
Mark Fenton at Trail Crest on the John Muir Trail on Mount Whitney in Sequoia National Park. Click photo to learn how I can help you plan a JMT thru-hike.

Season A JMT thru-hike can be done from early summer through September. But the best time for an ultralight thru-hike is mid-August to mid-September, when—usually—the mosquitoes have abated and rain is rare (allowing you to use a tarp instead of a tent), the high passes are snow-free, and mornings are cool.

The Itinerary Fastpacking the JMT isn’t just for the lunatic fringe—ultralight hiking was born here. Our group found seven days doable but extremely hard. More reasonable is 10 to 11 days, because fit hikers capable of averaging 20 to 22 miles a day can, with early-morning starts, still take a break in shade during the worst afternoon heat—and critically, not carry more than five days of food. Here’s how:

•    Hike north to south—from Yosemite Valley to Whitney Portal—to gradually acclimate to the highest elevations.
•    Hike in the cool morning and evening hours and take a break during the hottest time of afternoon.
•    Start early to knock off most of your day’s mileage by early afternoon. For example, by starting at 7 a.m. and averaging 2.5 mph when walking, you can cover 15 miles by 2 p.m. if you’re walking a cumulative six out of those seven hours.
•     By going ultralight and not cooking, you’ll find that packing up camp takes just minutes. See more tips on backpacking only with food that doesn’t require cooking in my article “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” which requires a paid subscription to read in full. (If you don’t have a subscription, you can purchase that one article by clicking here.)
•    Plan fewer miles on days when your pack is heaviest, and more miles when you’re traveling lightest.
•    Hiking southbound, the hardest and hottest climbs are to Mather Pass, Glen Pass, Forester Pass, and Trail Crest on Mount Whitney. Try to do these in the morning.

Permit Get a permit for the entire JMT from the park or forest where you plan to start, either Yosemite National Park or the Inyo National Forest (see below). JMT permits are in great demand for dates in July, August, and September.

To hike the JMT southbound, apply for a permit from Yosemite National Park 24 weeks (168 or 169 days) in advance of the date you’d like to begin—for example, apply on March 4 or 5 to start hiking Aug. 20. Increase your chances by applying for a range of start dates in Yosemite.

Permits for hiking northbound, starting at Whitney Portal, are reserved through a lottery system at recreation.gov; apply online between Feb. 1 and March 15. Find more info at nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/jmtfaq.htm.

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A backpacker on the John Muir Trail overlooking the Cathedral Range in Yosemite National Park.
Todd Arndt on the John Muir Trail overlooking the Cathedral Range in Yosemite National Park.

Minimize Pack Weight

A critical tip: Keep your base pack weight—which includes only gear and clothing weight (which remains constant), not food and water weight (which fluctuates throughout a trip)—low enough that you can hike at a strong pace. A base pack weight of 15 pounds is not hard to accomplish without compromising comfort or safety; many thru-hikers get it significantly lower than that.

See my article “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” which requires a paid subscription to read in full. (If you don’t have a subscription, you can purchase that one article by clicking here.)

And see all of my reviews of ultralight backpacking gear.

Follow This Resupply Plan

•    From Yosemite Valley, carry only light hydration packs for the 22 miles to Tuolumne Meadows. Have your backpacking gear and food waiting there. (Convince a friend to meet you there with your group’s gear and food.) Eat a big meal in the Tuolumne café.
•    At Red’s Meadow (redsmeadow.com), a short hike off the JMT, resupply for the next 50 trail miles either by having someone meet you there, or for a fee, mailing or delivering a package in advance. Eat a big meal at the Mule House Café.
•    Resupply a final time at Muir Trail Ranch (muirtrailranch.com/backpacker), about a mile off the JMT near the trail’s midpoint. Ship non-perishable food weeks in advance; a fee is charged.

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A backpacker on the John Muir Trail hiking toward Silver Pass in the John Muir Wilderness.
Mark Fenton backpacking the John Muir Trail hiking toward Silver Pass in the John Muir Wilderness. Click photo to learn how I can help you plan this trip.

Not up for 20-mile days?

It’s not for everyone, of course. Many hikers allot three weeks, a pace of about 10 miles a day. Maybe the smartest strategy for you would be something in between—say, 15 days averaging 14.7 miles per day. Experiment with backpacking longer days and traveling light on shorter trips before your JMT thru-hike.

Still, traditional backpackers can draw benefits from adopting strategies employed by fastpackers—including going north to south on the JMT. Besides giving you time to acclimate to the higher elevations of the southern Sierra, it gives you two resupply opportunities (Tuolumne Meadows and Red’s Meadow) to keep your pack lighter while building up your trail legs. And it gives you half the trip—prior to reaching the last resupply opp, Muir Trail Ranch—to gauge your food needs and daily mileage capabilities.

By that time, you may find you’re walking farther every day than you anticipated and possibly eating (slightly) less than planned. Both realizations are common among people doing their first long trail. Backpackers are as likely to overestimate food as underestimate it.

Plus, except for the high passes, the JMT is not, step for step, as difficult as hiking in other parts of the country. Give serious thought to food supply and daily mileage, because leaving Muir Trail Ranch with 10 or 11 days worth of food will add about 20 pounds to your pack as you head for the JMT’s highest passes.

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A backpacker passing Wanda Lake on the John Muir Trail in Kings Canyon National Park.
Todd Arndt passing Wanda Lake on the John Muir Trail in Kings Canyon National Park.

You might even plan to hike shorter days for the trail’s northern half, as you’re getting stronger as well as to linger in places, but by the time you reach Muir Trail Ranch, be ready for longer days in order to reduce your pack’s food weight for the southern half of the JMT.

And that, really, is the whole point. Carrying too much weight on your back only makes a trip more difficult—and can make it miserable. You spend too much time thinking about when you can take a break from carrying your pack instead of thinking about where you are. That’s not why you’re out there.

Discard any misguided notion that you’ll “miss too much” by hiking bigger days—you’re still walking, after all, and only incrementally faster than you would walk with a heavier pack. You’re just walking for more hours each day—and more comfortably.

Let’s face it: The real reason you’d hike slower with a heavier pack is that it’s crushing weight is slowing you down—not because walking at that pace somehow gives you a higher-quality experience.

See my Custom Trip Planning page for details on how I can help make your JMT hike exponentially better by giving you a personalized, customized trip-planning consult.

And see more advice about planning a JMT thru-hike in my story about our seven-day thru-hike, which has more photos and a video, plus tips on planning it.

Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of both stories for free, or download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and the lightweight backpacking guide without having a paid membership.

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30 thoughts on “Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail: The Ultimate, 10-day, Ultralight Plan”

  1. I enjoy reading your articles when they show up on my phone. I’m 64 and working to get myself fit so that someday I’ll hike the JMT.

    Thx for all the info I can learn from reading your insights.

    Charlie

    Reply
  2. I’ve covered much of the JMT already (Taboose Pass south, plus several points north), so my personal tick list is shorter than the full trip. I hope to be a resupply helper for another thru-hiker, so with luck I can fill in my JMT experience that way! I know of a hiker who has done the full length several times, with each being unique due to season, weather, conditioning, even companions.

    Never had a bad trip in the High Sierra—I do not forget the ’02 bears and ’01 daily strong storms—but if my body is still working at the end I’ve had a fine time.

    Reply
  3. I would reconsider what this joker is telling you, 20- 22 miles a day is unrealistic in the high Sierra’s or the JMT. I grew up as a kid hiking this territory in the best shape of my life and no where near averaging 20 miles a day? Switchabacks that go on for miles, 11k passes with unpredictable weather( even during the summer) and mountain sickness if you are not properly acclaimed. I dont believe this guy has ever hiked the JMT

    Reply
    • Hi Tim,

      Thanks for the comment, however hostile and uninformed it may be, I assure you that I take no offense! In fact, you gave me a chuckle with the “joker” line and the suggestion that I’ve never thru-hiked the JMT. Check out my story about friends and me thru-hiking it in seven days, I believe the photos present incontrovertible evidence that we did it! In fact, I first wrote a different version of that story for Backpacker magazine, when I was the magazine’s Northwest Editor and proposed to write about fastpacking the JMT in a week.

      In fact, spend some time at this blog and you will find many stories about ultra-hikes and backpacking trips I’ve taken that, I believe, also vouch for my credentials, including hiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim in one day (42 miles, over 22,000 vertical feet) multiple times (most recently last October, with several friends, most of us over 50 years old), my stories about backpacking 150 miles through Yosemite in seven days, and my story about America’s hardest dayhikes, all of which I have done. I have backpacked over 20 miles per day on more trips than I could possibly estimate, going back to long before I had lightweight gear.

      Over the four decades I’ve been hiking and backpacking, I have met many people who subscribe to the attitude that can be summed up with the phrase, “If I couldn’t do it, nobody can possibly do it.” I believe you may be guilty of that. As I emphasize in this story, thru-hiking the JMT in 10 days is only appropriate for very fit and experienced backpackers. But there are a surprising number of people who fit that description. The other comments on this story and the high volume of traffic it receives speak to the numbers of people who are interested in this advice.

      However far you hike or have ever hiked, I hope you enjoy every mile of trail that you walk and always make choices that are safe for you. But I would encourage you to not jump to conclusions about what other people are capable of doing. And that’s certainly a weak premise upon which to question the veracity of someone whom you don’t know.

      Reply
      • Such a lovely response I have to say, well done.

        I am so eager to hike the JMT trail but I fear prime conditions compete with wildfire season now – all my wilderness plans for Fall 2020 fell through. Is this a valid concern?

        Reply
        • Thanks, Lianne. Most of the comments I receive are much friendlier than that person’s, but I don’t object to people expressing their opinions.

          Your concern about wildfires is certainly valid. I’ve had to cancel or alter plans for backpacking trips several times in the past decade or so. Unfortunately, human impact on the climate has made wildfires and smoke a regular seasonal occurrence (that stretches across multiple seasons in some places).

          That said, it’s impossible to predict what areas wildfires will affect in any given summer. I certainly continue to make plans for backpacking trips and hope for the best, and prepare myself to alter plans if necessary. When a large wildfire forced the cancellation of my plans (and permit) to backpack in Glacier National Park in September 2017, I hastily put together a trip into the Wind River Range that turned out to be wonderful. The following year, I was able to return to Glacier to hike most of the Continental Divide Trail through the park.

          For this summer, I’ve applied for another permit for Glacier in early September, I already have a permit reservation for a High Sierra trip in mid-September—for a trip I had to cancel last September because of wildfires—and I plan to apply for a Yosemite permit for mid-September, too. I don’t want to stop planning trips because of wildfires any more than I’ll stop planning trips because of the possibility of myriad other events that could force me to cancel them (like a pandemic!).

          I know that’s not entirely consoling, but I hope it inspires you to try to plan trips.

          I hope you sign up for my free email newsletter and decide to Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories.

          And I’ve helped other readers plan a John Muir Trail thru-hike, by the way; click here to learn how I can help you plan your trip. Please keep in touch!

          Reply
    • I live in Colorado and have hiked the Colorado Trail (500 miles). The Southern half is pretty much all above 10000ft. Point being… 20 miles a day when all you have to do all day is to walk, seems extremely reasonable. That was my average on the CT and I slept in most days.

      Reply
    • Thanks, Julie. I can provide much more detailed advice on thru-hiking the JMT, from an itinerary and recommended best campsites to planning the best time to do it, getting a hard-to-get permit, gear questions, etc., in one of my expert custom trip-planning consults. See my Custom Trip Planning page for more on that.

      Reply
  4. Thanks for the information! The landscape is awesome there. But in June and July this area is full of mosquitoes so it’s better to think about mosquito protection. I use thyme essential oil as a natural mosquito repellent and it’s helpful.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the suggestion, Nicholas. You’re right about the High Sierra having a lot of mosquitoes in early summer, which is why I generally prefer going there in late summer.

      Reply
  5. Thanks for the information…we just had our first child and I had to take the summer off from hiking to heal up from my C-section. Did you see anyone hiking with babies on the trail? Do you think this would be a good hike to do with a little one? Obviously going super light is going to be a challenge…

    Reply
    • Hi Alex, good question. Since thru-hiking the John Muir Trail is about 220 miles, including the descent off Mount Whitney (the trail’s southern terminus), and has just a few points along it to resupply food, I would think it’s extremely challenging to backpack it all with a baby. I didn’t see any backpackers with babies on it. I would strongly suggest you start with an overnight or weekend backpacking trip with your baby and gradually work up to longer trips, which will happen as your child grows, of course.

      See trip ideas and tips at https://thebigoutside.com/family-adventures-2/ and https://thebigoutside.com/skills/.

      Congratulations and good luck!

      Reply
  6. Hi Michael:

    I saw your planner for the 10-day JMT hike a while back in early 2017. Did you take it down? I was hoping to get an idea of how you managed 10 days and hit up restaurants on the hike.

    Reply
  7. Thanks for the column. Also the pdf with the list of campsites has been invaluable as I plan my hike. I’m planning on doing 10 days NOBO in September. Training my butt of now and am looking forward to the miles. Thanks again.

    Reply
  8. hi, when you talk about not cooking, is there a work around for at least making coffee? Early mornings in the woods or mountains are best served with a nice cup of joe in my book 🙂

    Are fires not allowed at all? Are there any small light stoves you would suggest?

    Reply
    • Good for you, Susan. Remember to look into the earliest date to apply for a permit (depending on where you start). The 10-day plan will also feel like a longer trip, because you’re putting in long days. Good luck and let me know how it goes when you do it.

      Reply
    • Hi Mike, regulations regarding dogs vary between the different public lands through which the JMT passes. Contact the various agencies or look at their websites for answers, but I believe you’ll find that dogs are prohibited or permitted on if leashed in the national parks, and I’m not certain about the wilderness areas and national forests. Good luck.

      Reply